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King of Street Food: PDX Food Carts

Portland, OR – aka Rose City, Rip City, PDX – where fixed geared cyclist ride rampant with their hipster outfits (vintage style groomed mustaches, flannels, and tight skinny jeans – butt cracks included).  But the truth about Portland’s identity is bifurcated. Two of the major sports retail HQs are based in Portland and produce young professional hipsters running around in their Nike or Adidas attire. But most people from Seattle would judge Portland as their poor stoner hipster brother that desperately needs a bath and who fervently partakes in liberal protests because it’s the “cool thing” to do on a Friday night (#occupypdx).

However, this old Portland wasteland has experienced an alchemy of a more sophisticated connotation while maintaining its hipster status. The reasons are simple – Gondola, MLS team, and urban renewal projects. Portland’s ariel tram hangs like a shiny new ornament and connects health professionals from OHSU (Pill Hill) down to the Willamette River. The cult following MLS Timbers team has a newly remodeled soccer stadium that is nestle in the heart of the popular NW 23rd uptown neighborhood. They also cleaned up their run-down industrial Pearl District by retrofitting old warehouses to become a greener and stylish place to work, live, eat and shop. But Portland’s bustling new district, MLS team and their (half useless) gondola aren’t the only new darlings of the town. 

What most people don’t realize is that Portland has one of the world’s best kept secrets that has recently earned mentions for their street food prowess. Their underground food cart culture has taken writers, food critics, and travel connoisseurs around the world by surprise. Move aside Pairs (#12), Bangkok (#4), Istanbul (#3) and Singapore (#2)… Portland, OR has been crowned #1 for World’s Best Street Food

Portland has a nucleus of food cart growth and refreshing spins on our everyday foods. As we all know, street food has been around for centuries. But some of Portland’s food carts have taken it to the next level by harmonizing novelty themes and quality foods at a decent price point. EuroTrash is a prime example. They embrace creativity in their dishes and maintain fresh ingredients with their tasty menu (Chorizo & Chips, Prawn Baguette, Piri Piri Chicken, and Trashy B Waffles – bacon and “dos huevos.”). Closed minded foodies will probably be skeptical but you will have to be judge of that.

I began my food cart conquest driving 175 miles south of Seattle. If you’ve never driven between Seattle to Portland on I-5, it’s the “longest 3-hour drive” you’ll ever take because of it’s absolute void.

11:35 AM – Arrived in Portland finally. I only had coffee for breakfast. I was starving…

11:50 AM – N. Greenly Ave. & N. Killingsworth St. Food Carts. Meh. This location is conveniently a block away from the N. American Adidas HQ.

12:12 PM – N. Skidmore St. & N. Mississippi Ave. Food Carts. It’s better but I haven’t seen anything I wanted to eat yet.

12:37 PM – Downtown Portland – SW 10th Ave. & SW Alder St. If only you could’ve smelled the air. It’s not like the heart attack fried food stench at the state fairs. But rather it smelled like home cooking and my stomach was starting to eat itself.

12:40 PM – Jackpot! The Motherland of all food carts. There’s a plethora of choices. I stumbled upon food carts that served Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Mexican, Polish, Cuban, Russian, Southern, Thai, Korean BBQ, American BBQ, German, Ethiopian, Italian, NW, and French. Not to mention the sub-categories of each genres – American and ethnic versions.

12:49 PM – Made my rounds. The pit in my stomach was getting bigger. It was time to choose. I had to start small or else I will find myself with a stomach ache and that would’ve been an amateur move.

12:55 PM – Found Mai Pho – The pick seemed pretty arbitrary but it was Nary’s (owner and chef) warm and inviting ear-to-ear smile that pulled me in like a tractor-beam. I asked her to pick something small and easy for me to eat and she suggested the spring rolls. As she was hand rolling the fresh spring rolls I was able to get a minute to chat with her.

OK – Can I take a picture!?

NH – Sure!

OK – Can you smile for me!? [She was a little shy]

NH – [Giggles]

OK – [Changing conversation] How did you find yourself owning a food cart?

NH – I was laid off from my last job. I used be a cook at a Vietnamese restaurant. And it was hard to find a job during the recession two years ago. So I decided to start my own business. Now I can cook whatever I want.

OK – You love the freedom!?

NH – Yes! [Again, with that big effing ear-to-ear smile of hers] I don’t have to deal with a boss or owners. I come in and leave work whenever I want.

OK – That’s the benefit of starting your business! I live in Seattle and we don’t have this kind of food cart culture.

NH – I looked into starting a food cart in Seattle because I’m from Tacoma originally. The business licenses can cost you over 2Gs and in Portland it’s about $350.00. It’s also hard to get a Health and Safety license in Seattle because it’s stricter.

OK – [Speaking in my head: “Good thing these spring rolls are getting fried.” But I didn’t have any concerns.]

As I step aside to let a regular patron order…  

RP  – Beef Pho, please.

OK – What?! No tripe, no fatty tissue, or no honeycomb stomach lining!?

RP – No way!!! I can’t handle the texture.

OK – Do you eat Sushi?

 RP – I love all kinds of sushi!

OK – [Dumb founded by her response because sushi’s texture isn’t exactly a big difference.]

As the RP was walking away…

OK – Weak!  Bye now! Enjoy your American Pho! [I was being half facetious with her.]

NH – Americans don’t like that stuff and I can’t make it because no one would eat it.

OK – Americans are missing out! 

Conversation went on…

OK – Gotta run! Thanks Nary!

2:30 PM – SE Hawthorne Blvd. & SE 12th Ave. Food Carts. Ironically, I found the late night hang out in the middle of the day… crepes anyone? Yes please!

Perierra Crêperie serves a menu with sweet and savory crepes that has Nutella and bananas to the curiously tasty prosciutto and chocolate. Adria B. was working that day.

AB – Hey there!

OK – Hello! May I have your smoked salmon, cream cheese, and arugula crepe, please.

AB – Good choice, this is my favorite crepe.

OK – [Speaking in my head again: Was she just saying that to prevent any remorse?] 

Some small talk…

OK – [She has a friendly and warm personality that kept me company as I was waiting patiently and taking photos of her making my second meal of the afternoon.]

OK – [I forged some more small talk] Adria, you like working here?

AB – I do! I used to work for Mio’s Sushi Restaurant.

OK – [I didn’t tell her this but Mio’s was actually one of my favorite places to take my first dates to back in the day – it was a screening tactic. That and a five mile run at a 7 minute mile pace.]

Our conversation went on… We talked about where she came from (Oceanside, CA), why she moved to Portland, and music, blah, blah, blah. I suggested that she should go listen to Lemolo at the Doug Fir that night [Lemolo comprises of two very talented female musicians from Seattle that will just melt your face off with their killer “medusa” vocals].

As I’m eating my crepe, I witnessed a kid selling fabricated bouquets of flowers made from tissue paper. He was raising money for soccer camp. Adria – like a sweet heart – was taking some money out of her tip jar to buy a few flowers but was caught in a slight negotiation quandary with a 12 year-old boy. I was admiring this exchange of goods and so I pitched in some cash in the deal. 

OK – [I think I bugged her enough] Nice meeting you Adria! Oh and check out Lemolo!

I definitely walked away from this experience feeling a part of a food movement. And not some kind of Jamie Oliver act. No longer will Portland be subjected to only eat at fast food joints. Portland’s robust and ubiquitous food cart culture is convenient, fast, inexpensive, local and healthier (depending on what you choose).

Because these food cart mongers are a one man show, they have they to wear different hats (chef, server, dish washer, accountant, etc.). This business model ultimately saves a lot of overhead costs and is a relatively low risk venture considering over 85 percent of new restaurants fail in their 1st year.

That day, I saw flashes of Europe and Asia’s street food culture in Portland. Shanghai has their fried insects and reptiles, Europe has their Turkish doner kebabs, New York has their hot dogs and Portland has its eclectic assortment of Food Carts with all of the above (except for the fried insects/reptiles).  If you find yourself in The Rose City looking for lunch, dinner or a drunken late night meal – don’t miss the opportunity to eat on the curbside and experience an amazing food-gasm.


















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